Gainesville Red Elephants
Coach: Wayne Vickery
2007 record: 21-7; First round state playoffs
Returning starters: Max Joseph (1B/P, Sr.); Zach Bennett (P, Sr.); Blaine Martin (2B, Sr.); Justin
Fordham (SS/P, Sr.); Robert Hughes (OF, Sr.); Lorenzo Jerome (OF, Sr.); Charlie Newman (OF, Sr.); Robbie Hefflinger (C/P, Sr.); Sloan Strickland (3B, So.)
Key losses: 2B Lance Smallwood
Notable: A powerhouse throughout the 1990s and the early years of this decade, Gainesville returned to the top of the 7-AAA heap in 2007, winning its first region title since 2003.
The veteran-heavy roster features eight seniors, and only one underclassman, sophomore Sloan Strickland, who Vickery said was "one of the best freshmen in the region" in 2007.
The Red Elephants boast one of the state’s top catchers in University of Georgia signee Robbie Hefflinger, who hit .402 with 23 RBIs last season. Five Red Elephants earned spots on The Times All-Area first or second team last season.
Key to success: The success of the pitching staff. Vickery says his senior-laden rotation is good, but not yet outstanding. They’re certainly experienced, though.
Fordham boasted a team-best 1.13 ERA last season, while he, Joseph and Bennett combined for 14 wins in 2007.
And none had an ERA higher than 2.20. If they can duplicate those numbers this season, the Red Elephants will again be among the region’s elite.
East Hall Vikings
Coach: John Hardison
2007 record: 11-15
Returning starters: Chris Cornett (3B/P, Sr.); Jimmy Byers (2B, Sr.); Wesley Johns (C, Sr.); Ken Wise (1B/P, Sr.); Tracey Gardner (P/IF/OF, Sr.); Zeb Miller (CF/P, Sr.); Billy Satterfield (LF/P, Sr.); Cody
Davidson (RF/P, Jr.).
Key losses: Wesley Satterfield
Notable:The Vikings return an experienced mix of pitching and hitting that can certainly contend for the playoffs with the parity in Region 7-AAA.
Cornett (.360 average), Davidson (.346) and Miller (5 HRs) led East Hall at the plate last season. ... Wise, a hard-throwing right hander, will be a leader with six returning pitchers on the mound.
Hardison feels this group has full control of its own destiny on the field.
East Hall will be tested early with games against games against Stephens County and Class AAAAA’s Parkview.
"These guys have been playing together for a long time, and any success they achieve they’ve earned," Hardison says. "They are excellent young men."
Keys to success: Resiliency. The Vikings have taken some knocks over the past couple of seasons. If they can battle in Region 7-AAA, expect the Vikings to be in the mix for a playoff spot at season’s end.
Flowery Branch Falcons
Coach: Jimmy Lawler
2007 record: 15-12; First round state playoffs
Returning starters: Brad Stone (OF, So.); Greg Palmer (OF, Jr.); Cameron Wilson (3B, Sr.); Patrick Henry (SS/P, Sr.); Danny Price (2B, Sr.); Travis
Coxworth (1B, Sr.); Bucky Free (C, Jr.)
Key losses: OF Justin Kendall
Notable: The Falcons could challenge for the 7-AAA title this season on the strength of their top two starting pitchers, Patrick Henry, a Valdosta State signee and Matt Kerul, a Marshall University signee who transferred to Flowery Branch from Hudson High School in Ohio.
Kerul, a 6-foot-5 lefty, posted a 7-2 record with a 2.07 ERA in 2007 at his former school.
Henry, a 2007 first team Times All-Area selection, is a four-year starter and hit .371 last season with 6-3 mark on the mound.
The Falcons lost only one starter from last season’s playoff team.
Key to success: Run production. Lawler wants to see more crooked numbers on the scoreboard after the Falcons struggled offensively last year. Last season they scored in double figures five times, but were held to two or fewer runs eight times.
With the Kerul joining Henry, Matt Pilgrim (No. 2 starter last season), Mason Roberts (No. 3 starter last season) and Cody Ackerman (relief workhorse), the pitching staff should be solid.
All they should need is a little more run support this season.
Coach: Tony Wilson
2007 record: 9-16
Returning starters: Will Rowlett (P/OF, Sr.); Bobby Wirsing (P/SS, Sr.); Brandon Head (2B, Sr.); Paul Neese (1B, Jr.)
Key losses: INF Jay Green
Notable: Wilson comes from Stephens County to take over as head coach this season.
During his 12-year tenure that he led the Indians to nine state playoff appearances, including a string of six consecutive 20-win seasons.
The Knights last reached the playoffs in 2005.
Keys to success: Pitching and defense. Rowlett, a Times second team All-Area selection in 2007, and Wirsing have experience on the mound, and will have a veteran infield behind them.
The Knights will need peak performance from both aspects by the time Region 7-AAA play opens. Wilson said he’s not expecting "10 runs a game" from the Knights’ offensive, but Johnson will need to be successful moving runners over and being opportunistic with runners in scoring position.
The Knights got off to a good start on all fronts, holding off Cedar Shoals, 2-1, in the season opener.
North Hall Trojans
Coach: Trent Mongero
2007 record: 21-7; First round state playoffs
Returning starters: Josh Wright (1B/P, Sr.); Josh Haymore (OF/P, Sr.); A.J. Allison (C, Sr.)
Key losses: P/OF Zach Brewster; 1B/OF Joey
Notable: Trojans have set, then tied the school record for wins in a season (21) in the last two seasons.
Twelve players from last year’s Region 7-AAA runner-up have graduated, including Division I signees Brewster and Henshaw. Return only 18 innings of varsity pitching experience.
Keys to success: Growing up — quickly.
Mongero said that the Trojans may start as many as four freshmen and sophomores and will use their nonregion schedule to get a feel for their rotation.
Josh Wright, a 2007 Times second team All-Area selection, hit .407 last season and is the only Trojan with significant varsity pitching experience. He’ll begin the season in the role of No. 1 starter. A deep senior class, which helped produce a school record for runs last season (199) will be missed, especially Brewster, the Times 2007 Player of the Year, who holds seven school records (four offensive, three pitching).
West Hall Spartans
Coach: Manny Pontonio
2007 record: 14-12
Returning starters: Brian Ernst (SS/P, Jr.); Luis
Delgado (2B, Jr.); Chan Morris (OF, Sr.); Caleb Stewart (OF, Jr.)
Key losses: P/INF Hunter Chandler; P/SS P.J. Krauss; C Clay Smith
Notable: Pontonio, who has 350 career wins on his career resume, takes over as the Spartans coach this year.
In 20 years at Dalton High, he guided the Catamounts to 16 region championship games.
The Spartans last trip to the playoffs was in 2003.
Keys to success: How ’bout some of Manny’s magic.
The new Spartans skipper has a winning track record and he inherits a team that has teetered on the verge of success in recent years.
But the Spartans’ top two starting pitchers from last year have graduated and Ernst is the only returner with significant varsity pitching experience.
Lumpkin County Indians
Coach: Nicky Jenkins
2007 record: 15-13, first round state playoffs
Returning starters: Chad Fulton (LF, So.); Devin Dunson (CF/P, Jr.); Daniel Abercrombie (RF, Jr.); Sunny Phan (C, Sr.); Quentin Self (1B, Sr.); Parker Jarrard (INF, Sr.); James Davis (P, Sr.).
Key losses: SS/P Evan Gaddis, 3B/P Blake Raines, 2B Jordan Moss
Notable: Reached the playoffs last season for the first time since they advanced to the second round of the Class AA postseason in 2004.
Phan was named the team’s offensive MVP last season after driving in a team-high 26 runs.
Abercrombie began last season with the junior varsity team, but responded with .400 average after moving up to varsity.
Key to success: A better start.
The Indians were playing catch-up after dropping their first four games in Region 7-AAA last season, but rebounded with an eight-game winning streak that propelled them into the playoffs as the region’s No. 3 seed.
Jenkins says his team was "thrown into the fire" last season, now many of those players are back with another year of experience, he’s hoping to get out of the gates a little faster in 2008.
White County Warriors
Coach: John Brown
2007 record: 16-10
Returning starters: Josh Ingram (OF/P, Sr.); Kevin Frederick (C/INF, Jr.); Brantley Gee (2B/P, Sr.); Jesse Brown (OF, Sr.); Travis Rutkiewicz (1B, Jr.); Casey Jones (3B, Sr.); Zach Messmore (C/OF, Jr.)
Key losses: P Adam Heykens, SS Derrick Sheffield
Notable: The Warriors missed a spot in the postseason by one game last year.
Brown, a first-team Times All-Area selection, led the area with a .568 average last season, while smacking seven home runs and driving in 27. Times All-Area second teamer Kevin Frederick returns after posting a .423 average as a sophomore.
Gee, who is slated to hold down a top spot in the pitching rotation has been battling mononucleosis and is scheduled to be re-evaluated in two weeks.
Keys to success: Solidify the staff.
Heykens won 10 games for the Warriors last year. That’ll be tough to replace, especially with Gee’s status uncertain at this point.
Brown, in his second year at White County, said a couple of freshmen (Luke Crumley and David Sosebee) may have to step in and provide innings. If the rotation comes together, and the Warriors offense produces seven or more runs in 16 games like it did last season, a run at the postseason could be in store for White County.
Lakeview Academy Lions
Coach: Deuce Roark
2007 record: 13-13, first round state playoffs
Returning starters: Nick Saye (C, Jr.); Haugton Carswell (2B, Jr.); Brett Armour (SS/P, Jr.); Ralston Cash (1B/P, So.); Matt Reynolds (3B, Sr.); Colin King (CF, Sr.); Angus Ferguson (RF/P); Tyler Ward (LF/P); Ray Collison (LF/P)
Key losses: Jeff Reynolds, Rand Carswell
Notable: The Lions return all nine regular starters from last season. Ralston Cash, who hit .480 with 38 RBIs last season, was the only freshman on the Times 2007 All-Area first team. Returned to the state playoffs after a two-year hiatus that followed their state championship run of 2004.
Keys to success: Do something great. According to Roark, the Lions will be good, but not great in all phases of the game. To challenge Jefferson, the defending region champ, the Lions will probably need to exel in at least one aspect, whether it be pitching, hitting or defense.
Coach: Walt Massey
Returning starters: Reuben Haynes (P/CF, Sr.);
Cohen Cooke (SS/P, Sr.); Jake Flint (1B/Sr.); Hunter Ward (C, Jr.); T. Green (Utility, Jr.)
Notable:The Tigers return a solid mix of experience with pitching and offensive production.
Depth may be a concern starting two freshman and two sophomores.
This is a tough region going against the likes of Jefferson, Athens Academy and Lakeview Academy.
Keys to success: Senior leadership. Haynes (4-3 record last season on the mound), Cooke (.375 average) and Flint (seven HRs) will need to help mold the younger players into leadership roles.
Coach: Tommy Knight
2007 record: 32-4, state semifinals
Returning starters: Tyler Hill (1B/OF, Sr.); Jake Fields (OF, So.); Anthony Dowker (Sr., SS);
Cameron Blinn (P, Sr.); Chris Beck (3B/P, Jr.); Chase Harris (C, Sr.); Lucas Redd (DH, So.).
Key loses: Alex Simmons, Zack Kles, Brannan Wilburn
Notable: Jefferson now has what it lacked last season—playoff experience.
When the Dragons ran up against ELCA in the state semifinals that "big game" experience was lacking, according to Knight. Not anymore.
The Dragons return seven starters from last season.
Beck was a 2007 Times first team All-Area selection last season after having a 9-3 record and 1.63 ERA.
Fields was also a First Team All-Area pick last season after hitting .505 with an Area-high 12 HRs and 58 RBIs.
Jefferson also has an addition to its line-up with 1B/SS Blaine Skaggs who transferred from South Gwinnett.
Keys to success: Production at the top of the order. Jefferson graduated No. 1-4 in the order from last year’s state semifinalists.
Knight feels like the Dragons are going to stronger on defense and equally as strong on the mound. Last season’s .412 team batting average might not be attainable again.
And at the same time it might not be necessary. Knight added that this year’s Jefferson roster may be more balanced from top to bottom.
Coach: Tony Wolfe
2007 record: 14-11
Returning starters: Jaytee Swanson (LF, Sr.); Josh Rudnik (CF, Jr.); Will Bowers (1B, Sr.); Cody Getz (2B, Jr.); Landon Anderson (C, Jr.); Cody Vining (3B, Sr.); Drew Dasher (1B, Sr.).
Key losses: OF/P Chase Burnette, INF Brandon McEachern
Notable:The Wolves return ample offensive production from last season’s squad.
Bowers returns for his senior season after hitting .425 with four HR’s last season.
Getz is Buford’s speedster returning after hitting .370 last year with seven triples.
Anderson (.415) and Swanson (.320) also had solid 2007 seasons.
Buford was left out of the playoffs for the first time in eight years under Wolfe last season.
the Wolves play in the hardest region in Class AA with defending state champs Holy Innocents and state semifinalists Wesleyan returning loaded rosters back again this season.
Buford also faces perennial powers Lovett, Greater Atlanta Christian and Walker in what Wolfe calls the "murderers row of regions."
Keys to success: Building depth on the mound. Rudnik, sophomore Cameron Crawford and sophomore Jed Dills are the leaders on the mound this season, but lack substantial experience with no more than 10 innings of varsity experience among any of the Wolves’ pitchers.
Buford lost its entire top five on the mound from last season.
"If we’re successful, it’s going to be because our pitching came through," Wolfe added.
Dawson County Tigers
Coach: Jimmy Pruett
2007 record: 15-13, second round playoffs
Returning starters: Michael Huber (C, Sr.); Zach Cook (1B, Sr.); Jacob Barr (SS, Jr.); Alan Gilleland (3B/P, Sr.); Austin Lark (3B/P, Sr.); Lee Little (CF,Sr.); Ren Butram (P,Sr.); Chase Gilreath (2B/SS, So.).
Notable:The Tigers return all of their wins on the mound from last season with Gilleland (8 wins) and Lark (seven wins).
Butram returns as the ace in the bullpen with 12 saves last season.
Pruett says this team has a lot more experience this season with a run in the playoffs in 2007.
He also expects the team to be stronger with time in the weight room and as a result produce more home runs.
Keys to success:Offensive balance. Pruett says the hitting struggled at times last season. With a veteran pitching staff, it will help take some of the pressure off of the offense.
Banks County Leopards
Coach: Joe Lord
2007 record: 9-13
Returning starters: Alex Gailey (OF/P, Sr.); Aaron Wagoner (2B, Sr.); Zack Dale (C, Jr.); Chris Porter (3B/P, Jr.); Jeff Smith (RF/P, Jr.); Justin Gibbs (LF, Jr.); Tyler Hulsey (DH/P, Jr.); Kyle Smith (1B, So.); Bill Redmon (SS/P, So.)
Notable: Nine players with starting experience return, including eight every-day starters from last year’s squad.
Five Leopards have varsity pitching experience, including Gailey and Redmon, who combined for seven of the team’s nine wins last season.
Keys to success: Consistency. The pieces are in place for the Leopards, and Lord feels like his team is ready to compete for the top spot in the subregion.
Last year was down, up, then down again for the Leopards. If they can smooth out some of those bumps, they should be ready to make a push for the playoffs.
Habersham Central Raiders
Coach: Justin Clutter
2007 record: 10-16
Returning starters: Cooper Boydstun (OF/P, Sr.); Grier Rogers (OF/P, Sr.); Craig Tanner (OF/P, Sr.); Caleb Vermilya (P/1B, Sr.); Ismael Garza (SS, Sr.).
Notable:Clutter takes over as first year coach after moving to Mount Airy from Humboldt, Iowa. Habersham Central returns a lot of seniors with experience from two years ago when the Raiders last made the playoffs.
According to Clutter, the key for this team to get back into the playoffs is buying into the system of a new coach and doing a lot of things different. The Raiders’ new coach stresses tempo and even makes sure his players get on and off the field in eight seconds. "You can hide a lot of things by hustling," Clutter said.
Keys to success: Pitching. Habersham Central’s new coach returns his entire pitching staff from last season.
He says in the early season the pitching will need to carry the team until the offense can catch up.
Jackson County Panthers
Coach: Tommy Fountain
2007 record: 6-20
Returning starters: Matt Bolt (C, Sr.); Trevor Booth (IF/P, Sr.); Matt Broom (SS/P, Sr.); Sean Johnson (1B, Sr.); Taylor Kennedy (OF, Sr.); Michael Powell (OF, Sr.); Josh Farmer (OF, Sr.); Blake Patterson (P/C, Sr.).
Key losses: OF/P Michael Mauldin
Notable: Fountain is the third head coach for this season’s senior class.
He inherits a rotation with plenty of experience on the mound, but doesn’t have a clear No. 1 go-to guy.
The new coach is preaching excellence with his new program that plays in a very competitive region.
"We know going against schools like Loganville and Heritage we’ll always be seeing guys that will be playing on the next level," Fountain said.
Keys to success: Confidence. With only two non-region games to start the season, the Panthers’ new coach believes he’ll know early what kind of season to expect.
He believes a few early wins could go a long way.
Calls to Chestatee and Riverside Military Academy coaches were not returned in time to be included in the baseball preview capsules.